Jeff Warner PHOTOGRAPHIC, Golden, Colorado, USA

Monday, October 31, 2011

10/31/11: Vietnam in the rear view

Vietnam is one of the countries I’d looked forward to most, after hearing we’d be traveling on the Fall 2011 Voyage. I can’t say that I had any expectations (at least none very specific), although hearing Joey and Jonas’ stories over the years made me very curious about the country, its culture, its past as well as its present. I’m not sure what year they were last here, but I wonder if they’d even recognize Saigon, while Hanoi seems a more traditional culture, resistant to change.
The word ‘Vietnam’ has been in my memory practically as long as I can remember; I can still see the ‘George McGovern’ drawing I did as a kid, hung up in the Berkeley campaign headquarters office by Lorien’s mother, Rita. Nixon was running against him, using the platform ‘Stop the War’, though few Berkeleyites believed it. The time in U.S. history was one of civil unrest, and Berkeley seemed right in the thick of it. Up until shortly after 9/11 I might have posited that the Vietnam War left behind an era of offensive U.S. engagement in affairs that might not prove beneficial to either ‘side’. Some argue that the Vietnam/American War may have halted a spread of communism that might have overtaken the west. I personally think that the more extreme forms of communism were already slowly dying on the vine, but as we cannot change the past (despite how hard ‘the history books’ try), there is no way to know for sure. Was the Vietnam/American War a benefit to the southeast Asian people? Based upon what happened in Cambodia shortly thereafter, I’d have to doubt it. Was the war a benefit for the American people? Based upon many things, including both how veterans fared and were treated afterwards, I think not.
Communism still exists, and although it is alive an well in Vietnam, many people consider it a sort of ‘Communism Lite’. The government of Vietnam has chosen to open the economy in many ways, though not necessarily to outsiders. 75% of the population of Vietnam is under 35 years old, and thus many do not even remember the Vietnam War, much like the students on board the MV Explorer who only know it in a historical context. They will in the future, however, have some personal knowledge of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, though it remains to be seen what is written in the history books. Just as we ‘took over’ for the French in the Vietnam War, it may be argued that we ended up inheriting an unwinnable situation in Afghanistan from Russia, although the web of circumstances that got us there is certainly different. Based upon our experiences in Vietnam, should we have known better, at least in regard to Iraq?
I choose to revisit these issues in my mind because of how completely the Vietnamese people seem to have forgiven us, both North and South, old and young, and regardless of the fact that the country remains communist. Their country was ravaged by war for hundreds of years before we came in support of France, but has been relatively peaceful since. Coincidence? Only time will tell, though the Vietnamese people can envision future disagreements with China to the north, mostly over water issues. China’s thirst for electricity has driven the country to build dozens of hydroelectric dams, both choking and starving rivers that have for hundreds of years run their courses as they might, often into other countries. As in so many other parts of the world, the availability of clean water sources could prove to be a formidable challenge to sustainable future growth.
The World Bank deems Vietnam on of the best performing economies in the world in the last 10 years, largely a result of the U.S. bilateral trade agreement signed in 2004, seven years after the embargo was lifted in 1994, which had been in place 30 years. Many large high-tech companies have chosen to locate large factories in Vietnam, partly as a diversification strategy to get away from China’s popularity.
Vietnam does have some challenges, despite how rosy things are economically. Inflation is currently 15-20%, coincident with 6% GDP growth over the last 5 years. There is protectionism in some business sectors, it has corruption issues ranging from local police to customs officials, an aging education system, and an infrastructure that is improving but still strained by rapid growth. Intellectual property rights barely even exist here, pollution is on the increase while social inequalities have improved. Vietnam is changing very fast, but can it continue?
PS: It’s Halloween, and the kids engaged in Trick-or-Treating on the MV Explorer, prior to tomorrow’s 6 AM departure from our berth on the Saigon River, timed with the tides. Fun times, Tate got another opportunity to dance with Chelsea in the Union, and I unfortunately tried the wrong piece of ‘local’ candy from the kids’ bag, the foul odor of which emanated from my mouth after a few chews of durian candy. KACK!

Tate dancing with Chelsea, who is from South Carolina.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

10/30/11: Saigon’s Ben Thanh Market

Our last day in Vietnam, last chance to take advantage of the dirt-cheap (‘cheap-cheap’?) prices before heading to China. The four of us hopped the shuttle downtown to the indoor Ben Thanh market, a huge indoor, open market with myriad vendors selling more knockoffs and fish products than you can possibly imagine. Our first stop was probably the most comical one, a stop for Heidi to buy some ‘designer’ jeans, not a quick process. The girls at the vendor of choice immediately engaged Reade and Tate, asking them how old they are, if they had girlfriends, giggling when they said ‘no’. They were a sort of ‘friendly aggressive’ that we hadn’t yet encountered in our travels, with some comical twists thrown in here and there. We had arrived early in the morning, and this wasn’t the first time we heard “You are my first customer of the day, please buy from me!” After leaving with a pair of hot jeans and a t-shirt for Reade, I wished them well on their next ‘first customer’ as they tried to sell us an additional t-shirt.  

Snake wine; yes, that's a cobra and a scorpion in a bottle of wine, and yes, they do drink it!

Reade and Tate both bought a flute from this guy.



Very narrow passageways everywhere, miscellaneous smelly things around each corner. Weird kinds of both wet and dry fish and shellfish, durian fruit (Kack! We just can’t escape that smell!), backpacks, purses, belts, ‘Rolex’ watches, luggage, clothing of all sorts; it was a veritable cheapo’s shopping paradise! I scored myself a fine timepiece for $20 (that’s like, 950% off, what a deal!), and ended up getting the stinkeye from the first watch-guy I’d talked to, him eyeballing the new ‘Rolex’ on my wrist as I accidentally re-walked past his counter (Heidi will be the first to admit I have no ‘mall sense’). I just had to keep checking out the backpacks around every corner, being the ‘gear dude’ that I am. The funniest thing I encountered was a backpack labeled as a Deuter, sporting a North Face model name, with an ancient Dana Designs logo on a lower strap. Dana Designs hasn’t even existed for quite a few years; after being bought by K2 10+ years ago (who continued to sell the line for a year or two), Marmot then bought the brand, after which the great pack company from Bozeman, Montana effectively ceased to exist, some of its innovations being integrated into the Marmot line. I regret not buying one of those mongrel packs; I hate “lack of buyer’s remorse” more than anything, especially when the source is 8000 miles from home, and cheap, to boot.

The North Deuter Designs 'mongrel' pack that I wish I would have bought for merely 137,000 dong. The exchange rate is $1 to 21,000 dong, so get $50 out of an ATM, and you're an instant millionaire. The kids loved this.

Taterbug, doin' his thing.

The tallest building in Vietnam; that's a helipad to the rear right.

We caught a great lunch at a little Vietnamese restaurant near the market; upon sitting down at the table, we were served little appetizers that were packaged in leaves, folded up into little boxes. Food was wonderful, and the kids got a Sprite, which is becoming quite the treat as we make our way around the globe. We walked back toward the ship, the last street before which was more of a freeway, albeit with few guardrails to keep stray tourists from wandering into its path. Scooters, cars, buses, motorcycles, more scooters, bicycles, along with a few trucks thrown into the mix; we saw no reasonable way across this morass of humanity, and we thus had to suck it up and utilize to their fullest extent the street-skills we’d gained to navigate this final barrier between us and the MV Explorer. We lined up, side-by-side, and stepped off the curb into the 50 kph melee before us. Just keep walking, don’t deviate, best not to look upstream at the advancing waves of traffic swerving around us, I told myself. I was so engrossed in not dying as a family that I forgot to set the P&S camera to ‘movie’, and thusly only got some crappy stills, which cannot possibly do this experience justice (though you can barely see Tate’s huge smile in one of them). We all survived, adrenaline absolutely peaking, Tate screaming “Let’s do it AGAIN!!!” Not.  

This is it! Note Tate's big grin...

As we continued toward the ship, as usual I found myself off the back about 100m due to stopping to take pics, and a car pulled out in front of me, and stopped. An arab-looking dude in a suit rolled down the darkened window, and started asking me about dong-dollar exchange rates, and ended up flashing me his wallet-full of new U.S. $100 bills (and I do mean wallet FULL, at least 3/8” thick). He asked me if I had enough dong to exchange one $100 bill, just to ‘get him through’. I politely declined, and suggested that there were many places to exchange cash, adding that the Vietnamese readily accept American currency. Apparently, it ain’t just jeans and backpacks that they produce here in Vietnam. 

And this is the boulevard that we just crossed, about a half a block up, where there was a guard rail. The traffic was nonstop, the whole way across!

We managed to spend most of what we had in our travel wallets, and early the next morning the MV Explorer left the dock, the morning departure a result of timing the tides in the Saigon River. Watching the pressure wave of the ship’s wake hit the shore was fascinating, especially when making a turn; along the river’s edge, the water level would often drop a foot or two before the visible wake arrived, followed shortly thereafter by a tsunami-like wave that smashed into the shore, generally several feet above the normal river level. Not at all unlike the interaction between shoreline and sea during a tsunami.
The weird things you see out here…

PS: I can’t upload videos due to our poor internet access, and on top of it, I forgot to take a video when we crossed the street. But, it was EXACTLY like this, except our traffic was moving at about double the speed shown in the video:

Man crosses busiest street (NOT!) in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam 

Saturday, October 29, 2011

10/29/11: Vietnam Day 5: Mekong Delta

Heading for a day trip on the Mekong Delta with Reade, Tate and their buddy Scott Baker (Heidi was on call), I couldn’t help but think about the terrible flooding we’ve been hearing about in Thailand. The forecast for the day didn’t preclude a brief “happyhour-o’clock” downpour, but no extended rain was in the forecast. Again driving through areas with widespread rice cultivation, the nature of the fields looked different than up north. These fields of rice were much flatter, and looked less like ‘working available land’ than like proper crops. We stopped at a market area prior to getting to the dock, and got to see what they were selling. 

Three different brand names could be seen on these identical bicycles.

This wood-coal, as a local fuel, couldn't possibly help the air quality.


We boarded our rather larger-than-I-expected river boat, accommodating about 30 people in plasti-wicker chairs. This thing was going into the Mekong Delta? I’d imagined being in a canoe with some old Vietnamese lady paddling us around; I’m not sure where I got this idea, but it was quickly quashed with a stinky engine rumbling right below our seats near the back of the boat. Kids always seem to choose the back, and Reade, Tate and Scott didn’t disappoint. There were a few other children from the ship on this trip, which gave them some card-game buddies for the bus ride up and back.

In any event, despite this boat’s size, they can get it into some mighty small canals, and if you don’t watch yourself you can end up with a branch-thrashing souvenir to help you remember your trip to Vietnam. As we entered the first canal, there were two people fishing with some sort of net from a boat; our guide told us they were ‘electric shock’ fishing, and they’d get into trouble if they were caught with a battery on a boat. Some ingenious ways of fishing ‘round here! 

After meandering around for an hour or so, they let us off and served some local fruits, including mango, papaya, and a blood-red variety of dragon fruit that we hadn’t yet seen nor tried. We then walked past some bee boxes, the obvious source of the local honey that the tea had been prepared with, and then boarded some horse carts to return to a different style of boat, carrying only 4 to 6 passengers. As I got into one of these very old wooden boats, I noted the little squirt of water coming into it from below waterline, and the several inches of water sloshing about beneath the plank wood ‘floor’. I wonder if they make passengers bail? Hopefully the water-borne parasites aren’t plentiful around here, but it’s hard to imagine they aren’t; I have little interest in going swimming on this day. Loud little weed-whacker engines pushed these things through the canals and successfully delivered us all to lunch, where we learned to make lettuce rolls using rice-noodle wrap. To go along with the fried whole fish (which was perched vertically in a wooden rack for scraping the meat off the sides), they included pineapple and abundant fresh mint leaves, which was absolutely wonderful. 

Remind you of anything?

Reade staring down the fish that he would later eat the eyeball of.

Boats are colorful here!

After lunch we toured a small operation where they made coconut candy, using only coconut, no sugar added. They also had cocao and, as luck wouldn’t have it, a durian fruit version, the smell of which gave Tate an instantaneous stomachache that didn’t abate until we got away from the smell and again boarded the rather rickety canal boat, to return us to our waiting ‘pleasurecraft’ (as I’ll now call it, in accordance with my recent change in boat appreciation).  

Coconut candy in the making.

I don't think this cat was supposed to be drinking from this shrine's offerings.

On the return to the wharf, the weather started looking a bit ominous, some thick clouds building in I have no idea what direction. It’s so weird being in a foreign land without map nor innate reference. Navigating now is via newly-acquired landmarks with only the infrequent map to potentially guide you, though I’ve found more often than not that the basic skills of mapmaking for real-world use is often lost on those preparing the information sources we rely on as travelers. It was disconcerting at first, not knowing ‘where’ I am on a map. But I’ve learned to adapt to knowing where I am in relation to different things, often bird-seeding landmarks together to get somewhere, most often in an inefficient, circuitous sort of way. But, we usually make it where we’re going, and the few times I’ve thought to bring the GPS later provided me some entertainment, seeing our path navigating these foreign lands. 

Arriving back at the MV Explorer, we decided to spend a few minutes checking out the tent vendors who set up shop outside the ship. We lingered a bit too long and an SAS trip returned with a bus-full of sweaty, smelly people wanting a shower, and the three of us thus continued to shop while the mostly-college kids got through security and onto the gangway. About that time we heard a crack of thunder about a mile away, and all of a sudden the skies let loose with a torrential downpour of catastrophic proportion, again leaving us to browse the knockoff backpacks even further (I think the lady thought we were crazy). Two minutes after it started dumping, a huge wave of hot, sauna like air came out of nowhere, like nothing I’ve ever experienced; I could swear the temperature within that downward-moving column of air from the thunderstorm had to be 10 degrees hotter than the previous 85-degree air. Even though it was only 100 yards to the gangway, there was no way we’d make it without having to dump a gallon of water from our shoes, so we hung tight. About that time, Tate’s dance partner Chelsea showed up, so Tate took our stranding as an opportunity to interact with her, which he has seemed to look forward to ever since she dragged him out onto the dance floor after the Sea Olympics party. Humorously, Tate got his first date invitation, as Chelsea offered to take him to a ‘wedding’ that several of the college students were having. I asked her what time she’d have him home, but it occurred to me that a chaperone might be in order, compelling me to not bring up the subject later. ;) Later that night, one of our favorite guys from the dining room crew, Vic, asked the boys out for a beer.
Wow, they’re growing up right before my eyes!